Toy Day: Playful Learning and Skill-Building


All learners need practice in order to achieve skill proficiency in any given subject area.  We often think of skill practice as consisting of drills and exercises, yet activities to which the skills are applied are also a means of practice and are often more engaging and meaningful to children. Skills are increased with use. Our focus in early childhood is on providing contexts in which children are motivated to apply their emerging skills in literacy and numeracy.

In my classroom, children are invited to share a special item from nature, a hand-made art project or an item related to our theme during share time each morning.  Toys, however, are not allowed.  Instead, at the end of every month we have a day specifically set aside for toys, which we aptly call, “Toy Day.”  What started out as a solution to a seemingly endless share time in which children brought the same toy week after week has become a very rich, meaningful, community event in our classroom.  Toy Day is a great example of a functional and purposeful learning situation in which children are motivated to practice and apply skills using a favorite toy from home.

The children are excited to talk about their toys, providing opportunities for rich oral language experiences as well as written language through journal entries.  The children draw a picture of their toy and then add language to their journal.  The Toy Day entries are always very descriptive because the child is invited to talk about something in which they are very interested.  Other opportunities for early literacy activities come about as we talk about the initial and ending sounds of the toy or the number of syllables (claps) in the word car or mermaid.  Emergent writers may begin to use phonetic writing to title their journal pages.  During our afternoon centers, several of the children “read” to their toy, sharing a favorite story in the classroom library.

Opportunities for mathematical integration are plentiful on this day.  Each child is excited to measure their toy using non-standard units of measure.  Concepts of more or less are practiced as the children compare the length of their toy with that of their classmate’s.  Estimation is practiced as the children guess the length of their toy before measuring.  We also use a balance scale to establish a measurement of weight, providing additional opportunities to apply skills of measurement, counting, number comparison and estimation. We spend time as a class sorting, classifying and graphing our toys, part of the algebraic standard in mathematics.

Social and emotional competencies are important to foster in young children, and bringing a toy from home provides opportunities for the children to connect in new ways.  It also gives the teachers a glimpse into the ever-evolving  interests,  passions and fantasy life of each child.  We typically have “Toy Day” towards to end of every month.  To the children, it is a culminating event and a fun day of play in the classroom.  The teachers know that it is much more than that.  It is a time to observe and assess the children as they apply the skills that they are learning in the classroom, while happily playing with a favorite toy.

Technology as a Tool for Connection


Last night my family met a larger group of extended family at a restaurant.  We were seated at a table near a large T.V., and my children were strategic in their choice of where to sit, remaining glued to the television throughout the entire course of our meal.  While I cannot blame them for being more interested in the television show than their grandparents, aunts and uncles, it was a missed opportunity for connection.

Technology is integrated into preschool classrooms in intentional, developmentally appropriate ways designed specifically to encourage and enhance connections.  In my classroom we introduce technology to children as a “tool”, in the same way that we talk about scissors, crayons and colored pencils. Technology can be a tool for communication, creative expression, documentation, information gathering and many other skills when used in interactive, meaningful ways. If you are interested in the NAEYC position statement for technology use in preschool and kindergarten, it can be accessed here:

Our large interactive whiteboard (Activeboard) is used daily in class for whole group games and activities.  Since it involves groups of children, the activities are collaborative in nature, encouraging linguistic expression as well as the application of specific skills.  Similarly, the iPads are typically used with groups of children working together at a table, engaged with each other as well as with the activity itself.

The iPads are also an important tool for documentation in the classroom, as children are learning  to photograph their work.  We recently had a nature mandala project in the classroom in which children created designs with natural materials, photographed them with the iPad, and then attempted to duplicate the designs of their classmates.    The children also make connections with their parents in the block area by replicating the block structures that were created and photographed by their parents at Back to School Night.

Some of the ways that technology has enhanced connections in my classroom have come as a surprise to me.  During our afternoon center time, when the iPads are available for free exploration (as opposed to a specific, guided activity) the children often watch video clips from last year.  I simply had not gotten around to deleting some video clips from last year and had not considered the fact that the children would enjoy re-visiting highlights from the previous year until I heard a group of children singing while gathered around an iPad.  They were singing songs from last year’s Spring Sing, while watching a video of our last rehearsal in May of last year. Another child discovered a short video from our Thanksgiving celebration last November, which sparked a great conversation between the new and returning students about this special classroom tradition.  Witnessing the power of connection that comes through memories captured on film  has left me thinking about how I might use video of classroom activities more intentionally as a tool in this way.

Last week we engaged in activities for “Dot Day”, a celebration of creativity based on books by Peter Reynolds, and shared our work with classrooms around the world through posting artwork on Twitter.  For the past several years we have used Skype to connect with children’s grandparents and relatives in various corners of the world.  While there are many ways to use technology in passive formats (always helpful on long road trips!),  the opportunities for using technology as a tool for connection and interaction are plentiful and important to pursue in an educational setting.

In what ways has technology helped you and your child stay connected?  In what ways has it interfered? How can we use technology to enhance children’s thinking, reflection, problem solving and creativity?

Back to School Tips for Preschoolers


The transition to a new school year can be an emotional time for both parents and children.  For many preschoolers, this may be the first time spent away from home and will mark a huge milestone in your child’s new life as a student.  While the process will be different for every family, there are a few points that are important for all parents to keep in mind as they plan for a positive start to the school year.


I cannot stress enough the importance of adequate sleep for your child’s school experience.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 10-12 hours of sleep per day for children between the ages of 3 and 10 years old.  The link between sleep and learning  is well established, with multiple studies linking sleep to memory consolidation. Read more about this here:  Additionally, sleep plays a major role in your child’s ability to regulate emotions and focus attention.  Many behavior problems can be linked to insufficient sleep and some researchers are even correlating sleep patterns with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD. Read more about this here:

I know that it can be especially challenging to implement an early bedtime routine during these late summer weeks when bedtimes generally fall within daylight hours, but it is worth the effort as you prepare your child for the first day of school.


Routines are important for young children in their lives at home as well as at school.  Establishing a consistent drop-off routine will help ease the transition from home to school and help your child know what to expect.  Talk with your child ahead of time about what will happen on the first day of school when you bring her to the classroom.  In our classroom we have a flexible arrival time, allowing parents to bring their child in at their convenience during a 40 minute time frame.  Especially on the first day it is nice to plan to spend a few extra minutes in the classroom with your child, but it is also important to follow through on your predetermined “goodbye routine” when it is time to go.  Your child will look to you for cues on whether or not it is safe for him to stay in the classroom without you.  If you look sad and worried, your child will pick up on that very quickly.  If you continually extend the “goodbye routine”, your child will learn to manipulate your actions in this way as well.  Establishing a routine and keeping it consistent will support your child in his emerging independence.


Be present with your child and talk to him about his school day.  Most preschool-aged children share very  little information, so you will need to rely on information from the teacher in order to ask your child more specific questions.  Listen to your child and honor her feelings while keeping in mind that children tend to add or omit critical details, especially when they are feeling emotional about something. For example, a comment such as, “No one would play with me at school today.”  could refer to a two minute exchange in which a child asked another to play tag, but the other child wanted to play on the swings instead.  It is important to stay in touch with the teacher when you have questions or concerns about your child’s school day.  The beginning of the school year is also an important time to learn about the philosophy and programs in your child’s school and get to know the teachers as well as other parents in the classroom community.


Your child’s early school experiences will set the stage for his attitudes about school and learning going forward, and it is a huge responsibility to be trusted to support young children on this journey.  Throughout their school years, parents must be advocates for their children, while also empowering them to become advocates for themselves.  Strong relationships between parents and teachers are based on trust as well as the knowledge that we are working towards the common goal of guiding children in the important work of becoming their best selves.


Summer Enrichment

Some of my best “Summer Enrichment” was learning to identify Indiana trees at Gnaw Bone Camp in Nashville, IN

Parents often inquire about summer enrichment for their preschool and kindergarten aged children and often seem surprised when I do not respond with a carefully prepared packet of worksheets.  The summer season provides many wonderful learning opportunities for children, none of which can be reduced to the scale and scope of a simple worksheet. Here are a few suggestions for authentic learning experiences that may sound a lot like simple summer fun.


The importance of reading aloud to young children cannot be stressed enough.  Numerous longitudinal studies have confirmed that the time spent reading to your child is the single most significant predictor of future reading success.  Take advantage of the extra time at home to explore a variety of genres with your child and participate in the summer reading program at your local library.  Model your own love of reading by letting your child catch you reading for pleasure.

Spend Time in Nature

Experiences in the natural world are essential for healthy development.  Make sure your child has plenty of “green time” each day and take advantage of opportunities for unstructured free play in the great outdoors.  Summer is a wonderful time for nature walks, scavenger hunts, science experiments, gardening and catching fireflies.  Follow your child’s lead and explore the habitat in your own back yard.  Keep a nature journal and help your child record his observations and discoveries.


Children love to help in the kitchen and there are few activities better suited for mathematical development than the simple act of preparing food.  Baking a cake or making salt dough allow children to experience measurement and volume comparisons. One to one correspondence is practiced as children set a place for each person at the table and algebra skills begin to develop through the sorting of utensils.  Young scientists will enjoy observing the many processes that occur while baking as substances move from liquids to solids.  The fine motor skills engaged during cooking activities will also help your child learn to form letters.


Be present with your child and engage in conversations with her about a variety of topics.  Tell stories about your childhood and make up new stories together.  Play rhyming or other language games together.  Keep a journal and transcribe your child’s stories and thoughts, showing her that her words are important.


Provide a variety of open-ended art materials for your child and encourage him to express himself artistically.  All academic skills can be engaged through art.  Summer weather brings opportunities for outdoor child-friendly concerts and events and is a perfect time to expose your child to live music.


Free play is the  vehicle through which young children make important discoveries about the world around them.  The long days of summer provide more opportunities for children to engage in this most essential “enrichment” activity.  More structured play experiences, such as board games, provide excellent opportunities for practice of concrete math concepts such as one-to-one correspondence.

Allow Downtime

Modern children lead increasingly busy, heavily scheduled lives.  Downtime has been linked to creativity.  Anna Quindlen expresses this beautifully in her essay Doing Nothing is Something found here:


The time for summer enrichment worksheets will come soon enough and will be both appropriate and necessary in the upper elementary grades.  (As I write this I can see the stack of math enrichment packets for my rising 5th grader looming out of the corner of my eye.)  In early childhood, however, too much time spent on “enrichment” worksheets will rob you and your child of the time needed to engage in the truly skill-building activities described above.